God’s Word instructs believers to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). We’ve covered how you can confess to others, but what if you are on the other side of that conversation? How should you respond when someone confesses a sin to you?
Understand the Ask
For the most part, the focus here is on situations where someone confesses to you that they have sinned, but the sin is not something that directly affects you. There is a difference between someone in your community group confessing that they have lied, cheated, or stolen something, versus confessing that they have lied to you, cheated on you, or stolen from you.
If someone has sinned in a way that hurts you, they are likely confessing to apologize and ask for your forgiveness. To learn how you can forgive them, as well as what it means to forgive and why God calls us to forgiveness, check out the linked articles from our series on forgiveness.
If someone confesses a sin that does not directly affect you, they are not seeking your forgiveness—and, indeed, there is nothing you could forgive. Instead of asking for forgiveness, they are essentially asking for your help. By listening to their confession and praying for them, you help them be faithful to God’s commands. You can also help them experience some of the other benefits of confession, such as acceptance and repentance, based on how you respond.
When someone is confessing to you, it is helpful to have a right understanding of sin. You don’t want to make too much or too little of it.
All sin is a big deal to God, because all sin leads to death (James 1:15). When a friend confesses something that, in your opinion, is a really “minor” sin, there can be a tendency to respond by minimizing what they have done: “Oh, that’s no big deal.” “Everybody does that.” “I wouldn’t worry about that.” Such responses can seem to invalidate their confession, implying that they shouldn’t have even brought it up. But people confess because they feel convicted; they have identified something that they feel they shouldn’t have done and that they would like to stop doing. God cares about even our thoughts (Matthew 5:21-30), so no sin is too small to confess.
At the same time, all sins, even those that might seem like the “biggest” ones, are fully paid for by Christ’s work on the cross (1 John 2:2). When someone confesses a sin that does seem like a big deal to you, don’t shame them or do anything to make them feel that they are beyond God’s grace. Instead, remind them that their identity is in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). They do not have to be defined or labeled by their sin; God cleanses them and washes them clean (1 John 1:7-9).
Remember that you, too, are a sinner saved by grace. You are not better or worse than them, and you are not there to personally judge or absolve them of sin. You are there to serve them and point them back to the truth of God’s Word.
Thank the other person for confessing. Confessing to someone takes a certain amount of courage, and they have chosen to be faithful, honest, and open with you. Encourage them that they are doing the right thing (1 Thessalonians 5:11). They are proving that they are more interested in the approval of God than of man (Galatians 1:10). God gives grace to the humble (James 4:6), including people who are humbly willing to admit their failings.
Remind them of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-2) and the forgiveness they have in Christ. As believers, we don’t place our hope in what we’ve done, but what Christ has done for us (Romans 5:1-2). Yes, they have sinned—as we all have—but Christ willingly died for sinners like us (Romans 5:8).
Pray for Them
This is the most important thing you can do, and it is part of the instructions in James 5:16.
Among the ways you can pray for one another: pray to not fall into temptation (Matthew 26:41), but to wisely flee when tempted (1 Corinthians 6:18; 2 Timothy 2:22). Pray that they would rest in God’s grace (2 Corinthians 12:9) but not abuse it (Romans 6:1-2). Pray that everyone would experience Christ’s freedom and not be slaves to sin (Galatians 5:1).
Ask them if there is anything else they need prayers for, including anything else they need to confess. People will sometimes confess to what they think is an “acceptable” sin but be afraid or unwilling to admit the true extent of sin in their life. When they see how you respond with empathy, encouragement, and prayer—and without judgment—they may be willing to share what they are really struggling with. And that is important if they want your help in overcoming sin.
Help Them Repent
Confession is a step towards repentance, and one of the benefits of confessing is that you can seek help in turning away from sin. If someone confesses to you and desires your help, you can serve them by helping them change sinful habits or patterns.
The way you are able to help them will vary depending on the situation. It might mean teaching them what the Bible has to say about their sin and repentance. It could be helping them set up boundaries, such as internet filters to block websites that serve as temptations. You might suggest they attend re:generation to learn how they can find freedom from repeated sin struggles or addictions. In a way, simply the process of confessing can help someone resist temptation; if they know they will have to confess (or that you will ask them how they are doing in that area), they will have another reason to avoid committing that sin.
Part of repentance is not just turning away from sin, but turning toward something else. You don’t just stop doing something wrong; you replace it by starting to do something right. Encourage the other person to put away their “deceitful desires” by focusing on things that are true and God-honoring instead (Ephesians 4:22-24).
A key point here is that they must want to get well (John 5:6). People are sometimes willing to confess a sin but not willing to repent. Let them know that the Bible calls people to repentance (Romans 2:4), but understand that you can’t do their job for them. Don’t work on someone else’s repentance more than they are willing to work on it themselves.
Follow the Golden Rule
When in doubt on how to respond to confession—or how to handle any situation—a good rule of thumb is to do for them what you would want them to do for you if the roles were reversed (Luke 6:31). What would be the best thing for you if you were in their shoes? Seek to love and serve each other as fellow members of Christ’s body (1 John 4:7; Ephesians 4:16).